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Update 2 From Ishmael Reader Living in
Sustainable Community in Venezuela
December 24, 2003

On August 2, 2003, Colin Doyle left for a prolonged stay in a sustainable community in Venezuela (see original story). On December 24, 2003 he wrote in with an update on his progress. Below is a final update he sent in that describes his adventures through approximately September, 2004:

Greetings all! This is the third and final piece about my living in the Orinoco Delta, trying to semi-escape civilization.

I was in the Orinoco Delta in Venezuela from January/February until July of 2004. From August until December of last year I was there also. So 7 or 8 months total in the caņos (in the delta) with the Warao Indian family I know. Tirso and Surdelina Gómez are the leaders of the family. They are about 60. From Feb. until July I lived with them in the same house in Jubasujuru where Kwaku (my American friend) and I were 3 years ago. From August until Dec. I stayed in a nearby village with Julio, their son who is in his early 30s and is a schoolteacher.

In September I spent a lot of time and effort and travel trying to get a visa that is valid for more than the 3 month tourist visa. I didn't get one, and spent 4+ months on a tourist visa, but luckily upon exit in December there was no problem with the passport control guy. So when I arrived in January I finished getting the requisites and then applied for a year-long visa. This was in Caracas, the capital. They said come back in a month, so I went to the delta. I returned in March, and it was ready - great. Back to the delta. From mid-March until early July I was incomunicado in the caņos (river network of the delta); I didn't have a reason to go to a city.

So what happened in the caņos? Pretty much like it was from August to Dec. Me as a semi-family member, semi-outsider, working a little, studying, laying in my hammock.

One day in March or April I was cutting down brush near the house with a machete, clearing a place where Indio (Tirso & Surdelina's son; he lives in the house with his wife and 4 little kids) will build a house. While cutting I saw what looked like the head of a snake about a foot away from my right rubber-booted foot. I stepped back, verified that it was a snake, and yelled "juba" to the house ("snake" in Warao). Berto, a young guy living in the house, bounded over and killed the snake by smacking a long stick down on it. It was the kind of snake I thought it was, a mapanare. If a person is bitten and doesn't get the anti-venom he or she dies in a few hours; we were an hour paddling from a clinic. Close call - it was just a foot from my foot. The family said that when mapanares see rubber boots they don't attack, but if the person isn't wearing them they bite more often. I was wearing the rubber boots I had bought a week or two before. So that was a good $6 investment!

More dangerous - Florentino, a 5-year-old from part of the family, was stung by a scorpion and came within an hour or two of dying, the doctor said. Oi.

In April my feelings about trying to live in the delta started to change. I started to become less interested in things, for example methods of fishing or traditional healing. And instead of trying to thrive, I STARTED to feel like I just wanted to survive until my departure. So my longing for full involvement became mixed with biding my time. Y'all in the U.S. asked if I got bored in the delta - as of April I sometimes did.

One day in April or May I was cleaning the brush with a machete near where Indio is slowly building a house, and a wasp stung me on the shoulder (I didn't have a T-shirt on). This is common. I stepped back, didn`t see any wasps flying around and didnīt spot a nest in the bushes. So I continued, and all of a suddenly like 5 of them stung me on the shoulders and face and back. I went fleeing, and didnīt think about the machete. It fell from my opened hand and hit my knee as I started to run. I looked down and saw blood and a little open flesh.

I sat on the stairs next to the water and examined it. The machete had made a cut like an inch long, not shallow but not deep. It bled but didn't hurt. No adult was in the house, and no canoe, though there are always plenty of people in nearby houses. After maybe 20 minutes of debating what to do and whether I needed to go to the clinic in Nabasanuka, I decided not to. I used two band-aids to cover it and keep it closed. If I bent my leg I feared it would open up again.

So I spent the next three days without bending my right leg. After that I went without band-aids, and each day bent it more. After a week I was more or less normal, and after two weeks normal and confident to do physical work, swim heartily, etc. So I was a self-inflicted gimp. :) Now there's a scar there.

During the healing, I didnīt soap up that knee when bathing, and as a result a pimple showed up, got bigger, popped, and got infected and swollen. I took advantage of a trip to Nabasanuka, and the presence of lots of medics that came in a big ship and helicopter (!) to have it checked out and get antibiotics.

That same day the diarrhea started. Three days of normal diarrhea; then it started to have blood and mucus in it. I went to the clinic and got medicine, which didnīt work. I went back and got other medicine that is slow-acting, but it didnīt work either. The infected knee gradually got better, but the diarrhea continued, and I started to lose weight and be weak. Surdelina (the mother of the family) and her lovely little old mother prepared three different traditional remedies for me, but they didnīt work. I spent one morning worried about whether to go get more of the medicine, try to get taken to bigger facilities elsewhere, or to request a wizidatu (shaman) try and heal me. But that morning I didnīt go to the bathroom, and happily paddled to Nabasanuka solo in the rain to get more medicine. Some days later I was back to normal.

So I spent about 3 weeks total with diarrhea, most of the time with mucus and blood. I got weaker, but got back to 100% again after a few weeks back in the U.S. I DID lose weight - the only other time that I recall losing weight was when I voluntarily lost 21 pounds before freshman year in high school out of willpower and desire not to be chubby. I could see that my legs were thinner, my upper arms thinner, and my stomach and pelvis too. Now back in America of the limitless food I've gained the weight back to where I was, and with some physical work I did return to the same level of strength and endurance as before.

If I was not in the delta I would probably weigh more now, because I would eat more. Iīm often hungry in the caņos (or just want to eat), but donīt feel the right to press for more food. Thatīs the thing I thought about most often when 'dreaming' of the U.S.: what Iīd eat and how much of it, and, toward the end, what Iīd cook. I am now interested in creating lots of usual and unusual foods in our kitchen. There are SOOOO many food options and equipment to make it and recipe books. So many possibilities! So thatīs my health update.

Around May Tirsoīs mother Margarita, who was (in my opinion) near death when I was in the caņos three years ago, died. The body was brought to our house, and todo el mundo came for a day or two. People in boats from lots of places, dozens. Crying, wailing that I had read about and could now see. That one night there were ballpark 60 people there, most of them up all night, sitting and talking. Much of the family came, and there was lots of crying. The next morning they buried the body in an above-ground grave at the nearby Jubasujuru cemetery. It was a very interesting event for me.

What did I do every day? The same as before. Studied Spanish and Warao some, wrote in my journal some, ocassionally visited people or was part of an outing, and did small-scale work. Getting water for the kitchen and to drink, sweeping, washing dishes, and bigger work if possible, such as cutting down the grass around the house, and every few days splitting a lot of wood. Every day I worried about not doing enough work, although some days I wasnīt interested because of rain or whatever. In the caņos I am always thinking about what they think of me, whether they think Iīm lazy or donīt help enough, or what their opinion is. That may be a general fault of mine - worrying too much about what other people think of me. And playing little games of politics, for example working when everyone can see me instead of when no one will.

My Warao skills didnīt improve much in the last few months. For example, my fishing is at the same poor level it was when I came home in Dec./Jan. Iīm not sure the family wanted my help - for example of the 6 canukos (fields they cut out of the forest) where they grow and harvest ocumo, only in my final week did I find out exactly where the third one is, after all these months. One day I offered to go to one and clean it and get ocumo. They said īthereīs no ocumo in that one (all too young)ī, but the next day they went there and got ocumo. Maybe the quality of my work is too low. I donīt know. They know I am availalbe, but almost never request anything. Thereīs a general lack of communication between they and I, though itīs not glaring. Part of it is language difference, but a large part (I think) is their view (and more and more mine) that Iīm visiting for a time and then leaving, so thereīs no need for me to be fully involved. For example, they almost never told me I was doing anything wrong or criticized me, and I donīt feel the right to criticize them. They also have all the power to say "Leave" if they want to; I don't like power differences wherever they are. In the last months I more and more took on the mindset of a visitor who is part-family, as opposed to a kind of family member. I looked forward much to returning to the U.S. - yes, I've been homesick. A lot of my positive thoughts in the final two or three months were about U.S. things, from food and places and cultural understanding to unimportant sports or entertainment.

Mom will ask, with a scowl, if I wore out my welcome. I think I did a little bit. For example, in the last two months, Aydelis, who is 8 and the oldest of Indio & Marcela's 4 kids, turned into an enemy. Sometimes she was normal with me, sometimes good and happy like before, but often very complaintative. Sometimes she was right or partially right, for example to say that I don`t know how to cut up fish. And sometimes she was totally wrong, for example to look at what Iīm writing in my journal in English and say itīs wrong. She would often jeer at me if I looked at her or ate. I think she was voicing what others in the household didn't want to voice to me. I think Marcela privately complained a lot that I didn't buy enough food (rice, pasta, etc.). I consider my conduct fine, not buying too much or too little food, willing to work, etc. And they rarely requested food or money for food, and I donīt think I ever turned them down.

One thing I felt in the caņos was that I want to be in a place where I am not a visitor but a bonafide member, in which I have more control. For example control of what I eat and when, and the liberty to direct actions instead of just going along with them. Thatīs something I looked forward to in the U.S. - the right to complain about things and demand things. I guess Iīve had too much time of tiptoeing around, trying not to rock the boat. I have been a fly on the wall of a Warao household (and somewhat more involved than that). I have seen lots of things happen, though sometimes still donīt know what is happening immediately or what will happen. When they are talking, I understand the minority of what they say if itīs all in Warao, sometimes all of it if it is purely in Castellano, and somewhere in between when they mix the two languages, which they do really often. So I generally get the drift of what they are saying, and sometimes the fine points too. There are a lot of people they talk about, etc. that I donīt know, so that can put me out of the loop. Almost never do they directly tell me something unless it involves me (rare) or I ask.

So do I know whatīs in the heads of Warao now? Somewhat. I often understand short statements, even if theyīre made in the anything-but-monotone, how-would-you-transcribe-that? Warao way of speaking their language. Very often what they say is piddly stuff, like mumbling to oneself "Whereīs the knife?" or "Blow your nose" to a kid. From talking with individuals Iīve gotten an idea of what problems they think about. So I have an IDEA what Warao think. But not the all-important worldview. And there are few Warao who can think and speak in the Warao way and in the creole (Venezuelan) way. Some can do it partially, for example Berto, the muchacho (young man) who lives in the house. If I word questions a certain way and keep the talk simple I can learn things from him, but never could it be anything deep. And in true Warao style, if I ask his opinion about something he almost always says "No sé" (I donīt know). Itīs hard getting much out of Warao. It was the same way in Botswana.

So my thoughts about the U.S. while in the delta have been about the good things more than the bad things. Iīve looked forward to spending a number of months straight (at least) in the U.S., and working at Capassoīs (a farmstand where I worked before), and playing Nintendo and wandering around big bookstores in the evening and going apple-picking in the fall and grilling pumpkin seeds. American stuff. :^) Iīve never been totally comfortable with the family, and not able to fully relax. Maybe because of the power difference or because Iīm a role model or because of a lack of strong connections.

So what is the status now of my attempt to permanently live in the delta? Basically finished. Iīve given up the idea, at least for now, of living there forever. As I tell the people when they ask me if Iīm coming back, I was thinking last year and early this year of living in the delta and visiting the U.S., but now Iīm thinking the opposite: living in the U.S. and visiting the delta. So if one said my attempt to live with the Warao was a failure, I wouldnīt argue with that, but would say that it wasnīt a complete failure and isnīt that simple. I WILL want to return and see the family and bask in the sanity of caņos life and naturalness.

So why did it more or less not work out? There was no event or falling out or moment of clarity or anything. Just months of days. Part of it is the situation itself - a culture and language and such SO different from U.S. - part of it is their fault; and a good amount is my fault, for example not fully diving in, not being cheery, and having a grass-is-always-greener attitude. Kwaku and my good friend Greg, in the rare times that Iīve communicated with him in the last years, always says that he is facing his demons (is that the expression?), and I always think that Iīm not really facing mine (though not running from them). I can say that in the delta I have faced some of my demons, about what kind of life I want, personal shortcomings, etc. Not earthshattering, but more self-exploratory than before.

Now that Iīm out of the caņos environment, these issues and how it was are harder to get to the front of my mind. Already fading my time in the delta? - eesh.

Iīve been thinking about big philosophical questions. The big issues in life, like fate vs. luck, what happens after one dies, the soul and spirit, what is the best life to lead, thoughts vs. feelings. I feel a certain need to address these central questions, and not just hitting around the edges sometimes as I usually do. For that, I am going to apply to grad school for philosophy and religion. I donīt know all the details, but Iīm interested. I also like the idea because it is for a finite time, like two years. Coming off of this, my first ever attempt to permanently live a certain way, the limited time scale of school appeals to me, as it did for international volunteer programs. And I more or less liked college, with the dorms and classes and friends and events.

Iīve cracked the idea of working at Capassoīs (a farmstand sort of place where I worked last year and now have started working again), enjoying U.S. things, and people and places I have a long history with, and researching grad school, then visiting people, working some more and applying to grad school and enjoying Christmas cheer in December, then going somewhere in January or February. This is a timetable that Iīve come up with in my head. I may feel differently once in the U.S. longer.

Mate mikitane/Vamos a ver/Letīs see.

OK, more newsy stuff. About a week before I was to leave, Berto, the muchacho in the house, robbed me of Bs. 20,000 from my bags (thatīs about $10). I found out about it a few days later through the honesty of Ana Teresa (a friend from all of Kwaku and my time in the delta). He used most of it to get drunk. Berto had also acted so normal after he did it and before I found out, and even denied it when I confronted him. After talking to a few other people, who Iīm not sure would have come to me the way Ana did, Berto admitted it. He was a semi-chum too, a person on the same level as me.

And then when I arrived in Tucupita I noticed that I was missing a $20 bill. I had 24 U.S. dollars and then just 4. It almost certainly happened in Jubasujuru in the last few days before I left. I donīt know if it was Berto again (the money was in a different bag) or someone else. But it got me pissed. Yeah, rob the white guy. Twice. And Warao are usually SO respectful of outsiders' things, much more than Americans.

There have been a lot of anthropologists in the delta, and most of them, I have come to see from talking to lots of Warao, leave and donīt come back (with or without having made promises to return). They complain about this, but how can one expect foreigners to return when you rob them? I wrote an angry and factual letter to the people of Jubasujuru, and gave it to Salvador, a member of the family who headed back to the caņos a few days later. When I later showed the letter to Tirso, who was then in Tucupita, he got angry at me and said that I canīt acuse the household, and that if I act like this I canīt come back. Oi - unexpected flareup from Tirso, without a drop of alcohol involved.

The timing of the first and second robberies made me happy I was leaving then and not quickly coming back. Iīm glad I donīt have to deal with it myself.

I was nervous about having enough money to get out of Ven., or even to reach Caracas. But I managed to change travellerīs cheques (which is now against the law) with a Syrian who runs a shoe store. I bought a net for the family to help them fish, and notebooks and pencils for kids of Jub. who donīt have any.

The family, and maybe others in the caņos, donīt want more foreigners with them. Itīs because anthropologists have come and learned everything, then not helped the community (1), spread the information at their universities and in their countries (2), and not returned (3). There are people calling for Tirso (from Caracas, I think) requesting to live with the family in the caņos, I think, and he says no. So I asked why itīs OK for ME to be with them. When I asked Indio in Jub. he said itīs because the people accepted me, and from now on there will be no more - so it seems I got in under the wire. When I asked Tirso he said itīs the last time, and I canīt stay with them for a month or two like I have. I think heīs OK with short visits, but doesnīt want anything longer. Oh. Well, then itīs good that I donīt WANT anything longer - I might not have been able to get it. When I thanked Tirso and Surdelina for everything, she said for her part I can come back anytime, and she is grateful for my help cleaning the "yard", splitting wood, etc. (I guess what I consider little work she considers significant). So I think the reception from Surdelina. is better than from Tirso. So Kwaku, if you play your cards wrong you might be asked not to return.

So this is the end, troops. Man returns from sustainable community. In the end, it wasn't for me (though I haven't found what IS for me). But that CERTAINLY doesn't mean a far simpler and more 'primitive' life isn't the answer for others. Find your way, Ishmael thinkers. And stay true.


You may email Colin directly for more information.

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